How to Scan Photos Quickly, Easily and Safely

How to Scan Photos Quickly, Easily and Safely

Preserve old photos and make family memories last forever with a digital photo scanner

Pulling out old photos is a great way to reminisce with family and loved ones, but repeated exposure to light, air, and our skin’s natural oils degrade photos over time. Even the best-stored photographs will eventually fade, making preserving these treasured memories increasingly difficult.

Rather than leave the fate of your photographs up to the elements, using a photo scanner to digitize them ensures your memories will survive. Plus, you can easily share digital copies on social media or load them into digital picture frames. Read on to learn how to scan a photo, regardless of its age or quality, and the settings you’ll need to make the best images possible.

Got something else that needs scanning? Check out our comprehensive guide, "How to Scan Just About Anything"

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How to scan old photos with care

Before you start sorting through photos for scanning, it’s important to keep some special handling instructions in mind. Old photographs are especially delicate and require extra care.

  • Avoid touching the image on the front of the photograph. The image is where the emulsion chemicals are, and your skin’s natural oils can ruin image quality and introduce bacteria that can permanently damage the photo.
  • Use nitrile gloves whenever possible. Cotton gloves can transfer dirt, and latex gloves contain chemicals that can damage photos over time. When wearing gloves, take extra caution not to touch your face or skin.
  • Find a clean, open space to gather and sort photos, free from dust or clutter. Avoid using chemical cleaners when tidying.
  • Always place photos image-side up to preserve image quality.
  • Use compressed air to clean the dust off photographs. Never use water or other fluids.
  • Clean the scanner bed or feeder tray with a lint free cloth. Use manufacturer recommended cleaning materials to clean the scanner.
  • Keep photo stacks small (less than an inch thick) to avoid placing too much pressure on them. Keep them sorted in similar-sized stacks to avoid bunching or folds.
  • If using an automated document feeder, place smaller or oddly shaped photos (like wallet-sized images) in carrier sheets,, which keeps photos from crumpling or jamming in the feeder.

How to scan photos with the right settings

Once your photos are ready, ensure your scanner uses the correct dots per inch (dpi) settings. The higher the number, the more detailed your scans will be. If you only plan to share photos online, stick with 300 dpi. Increasing the dpi to 600 is great for capturing little details but can greatly increase your storage costs and may exceed sharing platforms file size limits.

If you’re using a scanner with an automatic document feeder (ADF), you may be able to capture both sides in a single scan. Your photos may have notes or dates written on the back, and activating two-sided scanning in your scanning software will capture that information along with the image on the front.

Some software will let you set up a file naming convention before initiating a scan. The software will then apply a uniform filename across all your scans, keeping albums organized without manually editing the name of each image. The image format is usually the last setting to check before beginning a scan. Usually, this option defaults to JPEG, a compressed image format great for sharing online. The included scanning software will often allow you to modify the JPEG compression rates for quality or file size.

Did You Know? The ScanSnap Home Software organizes scans, includes automated image correction features, and features user-friendly icons for quick navigation.

How to scan photos quickly

After successful configuration, place the photos in your scanner. Follow the instructions below depending on what scanner you are using:

Flatbed scanner:

  • Open the lid of the flatbed scanner. Ensure that the scanning bed is clean and free of smudges or dirt.
  • Place the photo image-side down, lining the corner of the photo with the designated corner on the scanner.
  • Close the scanner bed.

ADF scanner:

  • Stack similarly-sized photos together, ensuring the stack is as uniform as possible.
  • Place the stack on the loading tray, image-side down. Use included photo sorting trays, if applicable.
  • Use a manual feed option (if available) for awkward or fragile photos.
  • Use a carrier sheet to add an extra layer of protection for your photos.

Once photos are in place, either press the Scan button on your scanner or initiate the scan from your chosen scanning software. The time to complete each scan depends on the type of scanner, dpi, and file format settings. Higher-quality settings will take longer to scan than lower-quality settings.

What to look for in a photo scanner

Dots per inch (dpi)

If you’re looking for the highest quality detail in your photo scans, pick a scanner with a high dpi value. 300 dpi is a good baseline for average use, especially if you only plan to share images on social media. But if you’re looking for higher-quality scans, stick with a minimum of 600 dpi.

A high dpi won’t just make a better-looking photo — it will allow you to blow up images into larger prints with a minimum loss of image quality. For example, a 4” x 6” photo scanned at 600 dpi will still look great when enlarged to an 8” x 12” print.

ADF scanning options

Automated document feeders (ADF) can scan multiple images at once, but they’re generally best used on standard photo sizes that are in good shape. Inserting older photos, smaller wallet-sized photos, or brittle photos through a feeder may damage the physical print and ruin the scan. A carrier sheet can protect your photos when scanning with an ADF.

Photo scanning software

Bundled scanning software will make digitizing thousands of family photos much faster. Minimum requirements should include the ability to set album names for quick and consistent organization — a searchable database is even better. See if your software also includes automatic touch-up features that will auto-rotate images, fix askew scanning issues, remove dust or abnormalities, or improve image detail on the fly.

Did You Know? In addition to contactless photo scanning, ZDNET had this to say about the ScanSnap SV600, “If you want to convert your entire book, magazine, and resource library into digital form, then this is the device you need." Click here to read the full review.

Our recommendation: ScanSnap iX1400 and SV600

We know you have no shortage of options when it comes to choosing a home document scanner. We pride ourselves on having spent the last 50+ years designing and developing some of the most beloved electronics in the world, including our line of award-winning, easy-to-use, one-touch ScanSnap scanners.

The ScanSnap iX1400 is a fantastic option for most photo scanning needs. Featuring a high-speed automatic document feeder, the iX1400 can hold up to 50 photos at a time, and scan up to 80 images per minute with the push of a button. The integrated Ultrasonic Sensor and Streak Reduction features ensure image scans are as clean and high-quality as possible. ScanSnap scanners also leverage our proprietary scanning software, which includes features like automatic face recognition, photo rotation, color restoration and red-eye reduction. It also records dates printed on photos as Exif metadata to provide a better user experience.

For archival purposes, the ScanSnap SV600 is an overhead scanner that’s perfect for books, thicker documents, or delicate photos that are unsuitable for sheet-fed or flatbed scanners. Our Versatile Imaging technology combines high-end CCD optics and advanced LED illumination to ensure image scans are crisp, clear, and steady. Plus, the included software provides auto image correction features that automatically crop and de-skew scans to make image archival fast and easy. Click here to learn more and shop the full line of ScanSnap scanners.